Guarded Optimism

Reaching the NCAA Final Four without an established point guard is as wrought with danger as climbing Mt. Everest without the guidance of a Sherpa, which helps explain the series of cliffhangers that have comprised Tennessee's post season to this point as well as the sheer peril that lies ahead.

The importance of solid point guard play increases exponentially in the post season as protecting the ball and setting pace takes priority in an atmosphere of instant elimination, unpredictable officiating and unfamiliar venues. When you can't control the calls and the shots won't fall you'd better handle the ball which translates to few turnovers and many assists.

That Tennessee has survived and advanced to the Sweet 16 despite a two-game total of 34 turnovers and only 25 assists is testimony to its depth, effort and athleticism. However the Vols aren't likely to go any further without a dramatic ratio reversal. Before the NCAA Tournament UT averaged 18.2 assists and 12.8 turnovers per contest. During the Big Dance that per game average has dipped to 12.5 assists and 17 turnovers.

It's not easy to beat a good team while making more turnovers than assists. That's why the turnover-assist ratio is the best statistical gauge of success and failure. Whereas a big rebounding edge can be deflated by poor shooting percentage. In turn a torrid shooting pace can be marginalized by too many turnovers and not enough trips to the free throw-line.

Though you rarely hear it discussed in today's game, former Vol head coach Ray Mears came up with a formula that is the ideal measure of an offense and its effectiveness. He called it the O.E.R. or Offensive Efficiency Rating. Simply put it provided a value of points per possession. Anything over a 1.0 was considered very good while a 1.25 was the holy grail. Of course that was before the three-point field goal and shot clock, but it's still just as accurate and impartial as ever when adjusted for those changes. In today's game a rating of .95 is considered very good.

The Vols posted a modest .79 OER against Butler on Sunday and have only reached the 1.0 level once in their last five games. Clearly this evident in the number of close games they have played and reflects the overall performance of their point guards.

Ideally you want a point guard who can take care of the ball and distribute it to the team's best scorers in position to take a high percentage shot. However you also want the point guard to present a scoring threat both off the drive and from the perimeter. In a best case scenario the lead guard should be able to pull up on the dribble and shoot the mid-range jumper. Finally because a point guard will draw fouls he must be able to consistently knock down free throws.

None of UT's three guards currently playing the point are effective outside shooters. That allows defenders to give up room outside in order to overplay the drive. Additionally UT's offense can't get the type of spacing it needs to operate in the half-court game.

As things stand with opposing defenses pressuring the perimeter and taking away the three-point attempt, if Tennessee isn't able to create offensive opportunities from aggressive defensive play or get an inordinate share of offensive rebounds, it has few options. Even if a Vol post player can establish position on the blocks the guards are rarely in position to make an entry pass.

No doubt Bruce Pearl left himself open to second guessing by starting J.P. Prince at the point, but with Jordan Howell's shot in cold storage and Ramar Smith's game totally out of sync it was the most viable option he had. At least Prince can present match-up problems and provides more size in the lineup.

Judging from his play in overtime against Butler, Prince may have also lit a fire under Ramar. If that fire is still burning against Louisville the Vols chances of victory are greatly enhanced.

Otherwise Pearl will have to continue experimenting, which is a very steep climb.


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